Every year for the last 19 years, at the end of July / early August, I give a slight private nod to an event that marked the beginning of my adult life. Typically people grow out of their up through adolescence and go out on their own and learn about the hardships of life – for me it was a bit more abrupt. I think of it as the end of the “rose-colored glasses”, when you learn that life can be tough and more unfair and confusing than you ever knew it could be. Basically I’m referring to the end of innocence and naivety. Learning to keep on going, keep on moving with optimism and a positive outlook was a necessity for me very quickly. Things will always get better, no-matter how dark the time is that you are in.
When I was 16, there was a group of us friends who hung out. It was the summer, so we were all on our way to or from something, and one day a few of us decided to go camping. I spent the day with one friend, talking as friends do about everything and nothing, preparing for the camping trip.
He had arranged for some beer at the campsite, which was/is not legal for 16-year-olds. We went and did more errands, and when we came back to the site, his father had been there and had moved the beer – he did this to say, “hey, don’t drink.” He didn’t remove it, he just moved it and put it away. Upon our return my friend moved it back again to where it was in the cooler, and then when we came back, his father was there and he was not happy. He told him the camping trip was not happening for him that night, and that instead he would be grounded for a while. Grounded as a term in this context is not some “go sit in your room” thing, it would have equaled more of the hard, manual farm labor he always had to do, but without any of the already limited social time he would have had.
My friends and I met up with him that evening at his stepfather’s house, and he was pretty bummed. We talked about it as 16-year-old’s would, and when we left, he said, “see you when I’m done being grounded.”
3 hours later, my parents woke me up. “Hey, come on, get up.” I said, “Huh? Why?” They said, “Your friend shot himself.” I said, “What? We better get going to the hospital.” They said, “No, he died. We need to go to his parents’ place.”
So, we arrived and my other friend who also was there at the very end of the day caught up to me and we started crying immediately. We walked into the house, and the family all sat there still in shock, looking at us like we were being ridiculous. They asked if there was any indicator of why this happened, and I told them about him being bummed about being grounded for the rest of the summer, and his father told me “people don’t kill themselves because they are grounded.” Of course this was true – or maybe not.
During that day before, which ended up being his last day alive, when me and him were talking, we talked about the future in general. He wanted to go to college or the army, but his father wanted him to stay and take care of the farm. The farm was going to be his future, and he did not want it. That feeling of being trapped in a future that he did not want is probably why he killed himself, but since he did not leave a note, we will never know.
Also during that day, he asked me, “If you were going to kill yourself, how would you do it?” I said I didn’t know, and he told me he would use a .22 to the heart. That is how he did it. It took me 13 years to quit blaming myself for his death, because after all, that “how would you kill yourself?” question is a major warning sign. I guess I should have stopped and said, “dude, are you ok? if you are asking that question it means you are thinking about it, so let’s talk about it.” Of course if I had probably said that he would have told me to quit being a pansy and lighten up. That’s the kind of guy he was. But I did blame myself for not “stopping” it. People can tell you, “you could not have prevented it, he would have done it eventually anyway” all they want, but you do not believe it in your heart until you just let it go. Not letting go of the idea that you could have prevented it, but you are letting go of the responsibility for someone else’s actions. In other words, the actions of someone who commits suicide are not your responsibility. He was a big boy, he made a decision to end his life, and that’s that.
In the days, weeks, and months following, I was one of the “strong ones” in the group, trying to be there for everyone, but I was not there for myself. I did not seek the help I should have. I was told after 1 month to “get over it”, and despite attempts of the small community and school to be supportive, when the help faded is when I needed it the most. For the most part I could not let go of the guilt I felt for not preventing this death, and as mentioned above, it took many years for me to move on. I kept my faith and realized I can learn from what I experienced – keep on learning, growing, learning, growing, and so on (that’s also my life philosophy). I worked hard to fill my soul with an ocean of optimism and positivity, and continue to do so. Not the fluffy “positive” than shows up and disappears (which is still good – any positivity is better than none), but a positivity that flows deep inside of me. If you couple this with a heightened sense of genuine empathy after this happened, you have an idea of who I am.
This year, when I gave my annual “nod” to this event in my life, it had more meaning. I have a son now. How do I approach this event in my life with him? I do not want to pass the trauma of the experience on to him. I noticed yesterday on the train how much I enjoyed playing and laughing with him – no worries, just joy. I want that to stay as long as possible.
So, I guess what I will do is continue to be the loving, caring father that I am, and when the time is right, later in life, I will tell him the story of how this event happened and what it meant for me. The story will not be “look how lucky you are”, the story will be just a story, so he understands who I am, and will have a little more insight into why I am the way I am.
Everyone has tough stuff that they go through, so I do not think I am unique in having a hard life experience. Some people pass their hard experiences on, and the child is therefore also traumatized by an experience they did not have – to me, it does not seem fair to the child. To me, the worst thing I can do is pass the “wound” of an experience on to him. Maybe if I pass on the positive elements, then it is not passing on the “scar”, but passing on the benefits I have had from the experience. After all, what happened is just a fading scar by now, but just because I have a scar does not mean I have to give it to the little one, too.